It was first revealed last Monday that more than 250 dead animals — many from Fairfax County — had been found in a heap in a forested area near Capon Bridge, W. Va.
BUT AS things turned out, it was the second such incident in a month. A similar stack of animal remains was found in December, just 35 miles away. And in both cases, the trail leads back to the Fairfax County Animal Shelter and Family Pet Cremations of Chantilly.
"There's no doubt, by the proximity, that these two sites were linked," said Capt. Woody Lipps with the U.S. Forest Service's Law Enforcement Department in Roanoke.
"Animals linked to Fairfax County were found at both sites," he said. "And [Family Pet Cremations was] in the loop for animals at both sites because Fairfax County contract[ed] with Family Pet Cremations to dispose of their animals."
Around Christmastime, said Lipps, a pile of animal carcasses was located in the George Washington National Forest in Hardy County, W.Va., by a visitor to the forest.
The site's about 30 miles due west of Strasburg, and it contained 50-60 animals — dogs and cats, as well as wildlife such as deer, squirrels and possums. And Lipps said evidence suggested that they were all placed there at the same time. "There was some packaging — plastic wrap, like little doggie body bags — around them, where you could tell that they came from an institution and had been handled professionally at some point by a veterinarian or an animal-control shelter," he said.
FURTHERMORE, said Lipps, "Because of the mix of wildlife species and domestic animals," investigators realized that animal shelters — especially in urban areas — would handle both types. "Deer get hit all the time, and possums get in basements."
Besides that, he said, "There were some numbers associated with some of the packaging, like an I.D. number assigned to the animal. We also had an animal autopsy performed to see how [one of the animals] died, and determined it was euthanized."
Lipps said a couple of the Forest Service investigators were working on tracing where all the dumped animals had come from and, a few weeks ago, "They made the connection between the animals and Fairfax County."
But it took some doing. "Our officers knocked on doors of animal shelters, veterinarians' offices and animal-control departments, in Northern Virginia and West Virginia, showing pictures of the animals," he said. "They'd ask, 'Is this yours?' or 'Do you know what this is about?'"
They also did research via the Internet, through the Virginia Humane Society's Web site. "And it paid off," said Lipps. "We got a hit at Fairfax County."
Once they determined that some of the dumped animals had come from the shelter operated by Fairfax County Animal Control, both the shelter and Fairfax County police became involved in the investigation. They were trying to find out where the animals were between the time the county had them and their discovery in a West Virginia forest.
And until the beginning of last week, that's where the investigation stood. But some time during the weekend of Jan. 28-29, more dead animals turned up in West Virginia. This time, they were found by a local resident on private land in Hampshire County, about 35 miles northeast of the other site.
And on Monday, Jan. 30, members of that county's Sheriff's Department, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) Law Enforcement Section and Fairfax County police all began investigating this find.
ACCORDING TO a Jan. 31 press release by the DNR, more than 250 dead animals were identified, inventoried and photographed. Some still had rabies-vaccination tags and name tags. And though most were dogs and cats, the animals surveyed included mice, rats, rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, foxes, hawks and deer.
"Some of the animals had been decapitated and a few had intravenous tubes still inserted in their forelegs," stated the DNR. "More than 4,000 pounds of animal carcasses were removed from the wooded area near Capon Bridge, W. Va., on [Jan. 30], due to the potential risk to the environment and human health."
Anyone with information about this incident or anyone involved in it is asked to call the Hampshire County Sheriff's Department at 304-822-3894 or the DNR conservation officer at 304-822-3551.
Lipps said the huge pile of animals was discovered in a subdivision with new roads being developed. "But it was out in the middle of nowhere," he said. "There were several lots for sale, but some residents were [already] living there."
After the Sheriff's Department notified the DNR about the animals, the DNR contacted the U.S. Forest Service's field office in Roanoke. "The evidence the DNR had at its site led more directly back to Fairfax County," said Lipps. "Some of the animals had dog tags which said which county they were from, and [on them] the animals were described as pets."
At both locations, though, the animals had just been dumped in plain sight — not hidden or covered up in any way. Said Lipps: "It's pretty disgusting." Meanwhile, he said, just like Fairfax County police, his office has also been "overwhelmed" by calls from worried and upset pet owners.
"They're calling from everywhere," he said. "They want to go out and see if they can search for their beloved Fifi. We've had two or three P.R. people consoling them all day."
The callers are not allowed to see the animals in person, but officials are trying to accommodate them as best they can. "We believe that what we have at our site were mostly stray animals — not a collection of family pets," said Lipps. "But since the DNR has found lots of family pets, people can contact them and they'll show [the callers their] pictures."
He said the DNR considers this "a key for tracking down who put [the animals] there." And it's also doing so to "reunite people with their pets." He said his office and the DNR met last Friday, Feb. 3, and compared notes.
"Collectively, we're working to identify the person or persons responsible," said Lipps. "We'll put it together and meet with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Elkins, W.Va., in whose jurisdiction this is. They'll review it and help us decide on the appropriate charges and against who."
HE SAID there could be federal charges because one site was on U.S. forest land. Any charges stemming from the site on private property would come from the state of West Virginia.
His office's investigative team met last Thursday, Feb. 2, with Family Pet Cremations, and he said it's been cooperating. But that doesn't mean someone isn't in serious trouble.
"At the very minimum, dumping anything on federal property is a misdemeanor carrying a $5,000 fine and/or six months in jail," said Lipps. "But there could be multiple charges — maybe one for each individual animal. And if they're considered hazardous material or infectious waste, at either site, there may be more substantial penalties that apply."
He said people often toss out things such as old shingles and tires in rural areas — even "the occasional couch or a dead body or two." But he called it "very unusual" for deceased animals to be so callously discarded inside a national forest. "People recreate and camp there," he said. "Everybody's a victim. It's just a bad thing all around."
Lipps said the investigators have a "tremendous amount" of information and "we're going to be very meticulous about sorting out all the details. We're trying to be thorough because, obviously, there was more than one person involved in the chain of custody after these animals left the Fairfax County Animal Shelter."
The goal, he said, is "to identify the people responsible, choose an appropriate punishment and prosecute. Whoever it is, we'll catch up with 'em."